Yesterday was my mother's birthday. She would have turned 91. Today is my dad's. His age would have been 94.
|My dad on the left, I think this picture was taking during the war|
|I love this picture!|
The folowing is a story I wrote about my mother after her passing in 2007.
I like to share it with you today in their memory.
Maybe one day I will get to write the story of my dad, but have to dig deep as I was only 14 when he passed away. A long time ago.
Edvard Munch meets Louis
“My little girl. My little girl,” repeats my
eighty-five year old mother again and again. She strokes my face with her cold
thin fingers. “My little girl…”
As she soaks up my image with big eyes deeply
sunken in her ashen face, I wonder what is she taking in. My brown eyes?
Contentment? That I am still using a wheelchair? Thoughts about our past? Or
what my future will bring?
“…And you were allowed to come straight away?”
I look at my brother seated on the other side
of her Dutch hospital bed.
“Ma expressed a wish earlier today, that I
should call everybody,” he explains.
“Yes Ma, when we told the nurses that I just
arrived from Ireland, they allowed me to come and see you straight away. I am
so glad to be here!”
She squirms away in pain when I touch her arm. The unruly
nightdress exposes a deep diamond-shaped hollow above her chest bone. A failed
drip has left a large bruise, already purple in color, on her poppy-flower
skin. The gurgling sound of her chest is in tandem with the bleating sounds
emanating from a fellow patient.
“My little girl was allowed to come
straight away. I need to pee,” my mother bursts out when she sees a nurse.
While we wait in the hall, my brother tells me how our mothers changed
vocabulary reminds him of her father.
“Since her stroke she sometimes
tells people to ‘bugger off’. I am proud of her,” my brother says with a smile.
We reminisce about our granddad’s deviancy, recalling stories of how he once
put his walking stick in between the spokes of a young man’s bicycle. The young
man had cycled through a pedestrian area.
“Ma?” I hold my mother’s hand.
Nails as brittle as her mind. “We
think you behave a bit like granddad these days.” Deep crevices appear between her
eyes, followed by a great smile, which momentarily lights up her face.
memories?” the nurse asks. A very definite ‘Yes’ follows. It is hard to believe
that the strong squeeze of my hand comes from this featherweight body.
As the nurses settle her for the night, we are on the brink of a New
Year, a new era.
I sit down on my mother’s cream
couch. An orange-checkered blanket and blue patchwork cushions are waiting for
midday snoozes. I imagine her perching here, wearing grey trousers and green shirt.
Staring out the window, eyes wide open, right leg athletically folded over the
left, knee high up in the air, heel flat on the couch, left hand tightly
covering her open mouth.
The brown plastic
window box, once home to a pair of brooding collar doves, is bare and lifeless.
The straggly branches of a chestnut tree in its winter outfit partially blocks
the view of a block of flats across the road. I can see my mother raising her
finger at the black and white photograph of her husband, who passed away thirty
years ago. She’d scream: ‘You! Why did you leave me here alone!’
The sky lights up with customary
New Year’s Eve fireworks.
A daily routine
sets in, with twice-daily visits to the hospital. My mother’s two remaining
brothers, in-laws, nieces and nephews, grandchildren and friends, old and
young, also come to visit. She wants us to leave almost as soon as we have our
The day she has five of her six
children around her, we are granted a little more of her time.
“Go away to drink coffee!” she
tells us after twenty minutes. She turns on her side, seemingly examining the tree outside the window.
Hands busy folding a napkin into a perfect triangle.
These hands, blue
veins in a pattern not unlike her embroidery, were never idle. As a young girl,
she learned how to sew. Taking pride in finding a bargain, she still made some
of her own clothes at the age of eighty. Fabric carefully selected from the
weekly local market.
Every available storage space in
her flat is spilling over with art and craft materials: tools for card making;
pencils, paints and brushes; colouring books with Celtic designs; ribbon, beads
and yarn; patterns for endearing rabbits and funny teddy bears. It is not all
hidden away. Her home is a gallery of her creative, family, and traveling life.
Every inch of wall tells a story, even the
bathroom wall, with its jigsaw-collage created
by her offspring.
A photograph of my mother’s first
encounter with her great-grandchild in his incubator, hangs beside a rather
official portrait of a granddaughter and boyfriend. A calendar, crammed with
birthdays and wedding dates of family and friends, includes the dates when five
of her six children emigrated. The family snapshot, taken during her 85th
birthday celebration, hangs above the table. Looking at us, she’d doodle on her
yellow vinyl placemat. I wonder if
we will ever meet as a family again. She might have
had the same thought.
Above the television, a few
etchings of her town hang beside a powerful portrait of an old sailor, drawn by
my father. On the dark oak chest of drawers rests an ancient copper
letter-opener. It holds a prominent place among recent correspondence from
around the world. Her patchwork of flowers and leaves, share the wall space
with a print of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream
. Angry with us for leaving Holland, she’d look
at this powerful image and throw pillows around her bedroom.
Student nurse Jessie gives her
patient a spoonful of custard. My mother opens her mouth and swallows the
yellow substance with ease. At the sight of another spoonful, a look of utter
repulsion comes over my mothers face. It kind of makes us laugh.
“Nha nha…” Ma waves her hand
frantically, and pushes away the nurse’s hand. There is a look of understanding
between the two of them. My mother seems to say: ‘You understand that I want to
die.’ The nurse doesn’t persevere. This young nurse becomes the link of
communication between my mother and us.
My mother’s home becomes the family
headquarters. We eat Chinese take-away, a family tradition for family
gatherings, and toast a life well lived. We hear our mother say: ‘Sure I want
another drink, you can’t walk on one leg!’ The story that makes the headlines
for the grandchildren is about when their seventy-eight year old grandmother
was challenged by her three girlfriends of similar age to go into the sex shop
and ask for a dildo. To the delight of her companions, she went in and asked
all there was to know from a rather surprised shop owner.
My mother looks old, worn out, and yet strong
in her fragile body.
She puts her fingers in her mouth and takes out
some phlegm. She smears it on the white starchy sheet. I clean her hand. Our
roles have been reversed. As the slippery deposit contains blood, a sample
needs to be sent to the laboratories.
“Mrs. D., could you please cough up some
phlegm?” nurse Jessie asks. A look of puzzlement appears on my mother’s face.
In the hope that a drink would increase the chances of a sample, Jessie holds a
straw up to my mother’s mouth. She closes her eyes and opens her mouth wide,
like a nestling.
Bit by bit, I
page through the varied ways my mother documented her life. There are a large
number of photo albums, some already divided up for us, in the event of her
departure. Scrapbooks with concert programs; and a ‘funny stories-scrapbook’
with newspaper clippings, with
headlines like: African eats his father, mother, and three children;
and Out of protest a family do their laundry
in a church
. In her diaries I
read about my own life and the lives of my siblings. Details long forgotten.
This treasure-trove of memories,
written and illustrated by my mother, gives me a unique insight into her life
as a child growing up in poverty, as well as stories about her parents and life
during the war years. Being in my mother’s house, among her personal and
intimate belongings, brings me closer to her than we ever actually were. I
finally acknowledge the inevitable link with my own creativity and desire to
write and illustrate, and become fully aware that our best communication was
through our creativity.
As the voices of her visitors fly above her silent body, Ma suddenly
bursts out: “Godsamme truttebollen!” We all
“I say that as well,” says my
sister. “I learned it from Ma,” who in turn manages to let us know that she had
learned it from her mother. I wonder what thought ran through her frazzled mind
before this very gentle swearing saw the light of day? Was she trying to tell
us something but could not find the words? Is she annoyed with us for being
here? Was she suddenly aware of herself, so ill and small in a hospital bed?
I think all my mother wants is peace. Peace she is not experiencing
when her busy visitors are around.
“Come here, I want to tell you something.” My mother beckons
nurse Jessie to come close, as if she had a secret to share.
“It is time to go. I know what I
looks a little overwhelmed by this conversation.
“A white coffin, with blue flowers.”
Back in my mother’s house, we page
through her many travelogues. We find a list of all the journeys she made to
her offspring in Canada, Ireland, America and Chile. The count comes to
thirty-five. She has been ready to go on her last journey for much longer than
we were aware. In 1979 she had written a list of music she would like to have
played at her funeral: Inis und Osiris
, performed by the choir our dad was a member of. Adagio Sostenuto
by Vladimir Horowitz and to finish, a song by
Her wish to die does not come
easily. Her body, in all its weightlessness, is strong. Unable to understand
what she is trying to tell me, I stroke her ever-busy hands. I am grateful that
I finally have the opportunity to be with my mother alone, without the company
of a busy sibling. Before departing, Ma pulls my head close, and I am granted a
long intense kiss on the cheek.
Ma leaves for her last flight while
a violent storm rages over the country.
We all draw blue
and green flowers on her white coffin.
crematorium, my only brother still living in Holland places a small glass of
Ma’s favourite brandy on her coffin. My two eldest siblings dance to Louis
Armstrong’s Hello Dolly,
ps... As always it is lovely to know that you stopped by to read my musing and follow my creative adventures. It would make my day if you leave a comment...
preferably here, on the blog...? (instead of facebook...?)
Many thanks & Lots of love